MOOCs for the Masses: Closing the Global Achievement Gap with Online Courses


Home / MOOCs for the Masses: Closing the Global Achievement Gap with Online Courses

A few small interventions can increase persistence and completion rates, even among those most at risk of dropping out. Copyright image by Decoded Science, all rights reserved.

Knowledge is power – this idea continues to be increasingly true in the modern world. Many individuals are seeking out ways to continue their education for both professional development and personal reasons. With advances in technology, the avenues in which individuals can further their education are expanding. Colleges started offering hybrid courses which took place both online and on campus and completely online courses. Some platforms took this idea further and MOOCs were born – the hope being that they would revolutionize higher education on a global scale, making it more accessible and affordable. 

What is a MOOC?

MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course, which are exactly what they sound like. They are classes – or courses – offered through host websites and available to the global public. There are various platforms – including EdX, Coursera, and Udemy – which host online courses from colleges and individuals around the world. Many well-known schools, like Stanford and Harvard, offer classes through these websites for interested learners. There are different ways to engage in these courses – some are free, some paid, and some offer certifications to show proof of learning. Individual classes are offered, as well as certified courses in a number of fields. 

What’s the Problem?

The demand for higher education is growing, as jobs become more competitive. Unfortunately, many potential students are unable to progress in their education because of monetary or geographic barriers. People without easily available educational opportunities, or the funds to pay for classes, have a more difficult time in accessing traditional higher education. MOOCs are, in theory, a great equalizer for higher education – but research has shown that those who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and from less developed countries, are less likely to enroll in – or complete – courses.

According to new research by Chen Zhenghao and colleagues, those who are poor and have no college education are more likely to have tangible educational and career benefits from the use of MOOCs – so why aren’t these groups enrolling or completing courses?

In research published this year, René F. Kizilcec and colleagues noticed discrepancies between how learners from less developed countries (LDCs) and more developed countries (MDCs) engaged with MOOCs. In theory, these widely available courses should offer a more accessible way for those in LDCs to further their education, but people in LDCs are significantly less likely to both enroll, and complete, courses than individuals from MDCs.

In approaching this problem, Kizilcec et al. theorized that MOOCs tend to be based in North American schools and presented in English with an inherent Western-culture bias. This can lead learners who come from non-Western cultures to feel a social identity threat and think they do not belong in these courses. For this reason, the researchers wanted to find a way to use interventions to “reassure learners that they belong” in higher education courses. 

How to Support Students? 

In order to combat the potential threat against learners feeling unwelcome in MOOCs, Kizilcec et al. tried two experimental approaches along with a control group.

The first experimental group completed writing activities in an initial course survey about their core values. Learners focused on a few, specific values and wrote a paragraph on how taking the course reflected these.

The second experiment had testimonials and assurances that feeling doubtful about belonging in the course is “normal, short-lived, and not unique to them or members of their group.” Learners then wrote a summary of the themes of the testimonials and wrote an advice letter to other learners to aid internalization of the messages.

As they predicted, Kizilcec and the other researchers found that learners from less-developed countries in both experimental groups were much more likely to continue with and complete their MOOC course than those in the control groups – the experimental students even outperformed the participants from more-developed countries who did not experience affirmations or social-belonging support in some cases.

Some students are more likely to take advantage of MOOC benefits – but small interventions to help all students feel like they belong, and to remember how important the class is to them, can even the playing field. Image by janeb13

MOOC Participation: Why Does It Matter?

MOOCs have the potential to revolutionize higher-education, especially for people who have difficulty with more traditional paths. However, studies have shown that this cannot work unless people continue to find ways to increase enrollment and completion for those who could benefit from it most.

These new studies show that increasing a sense of belonging through common values, and helping learners remember why they are taking the course, can lead to more successes. Teachers and course designers can easily accomplish this by adding a few additional elements to counter social identity threats into an initial course survey for students coming from LDCs and other at-risk groups.

The results of this study are also encouraging for people who are hesitant to go back to school because, traditionally, it has been a big time and money commitment. MOOCs can change that, but only if people are willing to use strategies to be successful. MOOCs are a more flexible way for learners to see tangible career and education benefits because it is possible for individuals to try going back to school with a more personally tailored course load and schedule.

These findings will hopefully lead to further exploration of how to recognize threats to learning through alternative platforms, in addition to methods for supporting learners to feel welcomed and valued in these new educational communities.


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